Music on Horseback

Once signalers in battle, mounted military bands today lead parades

When 14th-century European mercenaries showed up to recover the Holy Land during the Crusades, they were met by Muslim warriors being led into battle by hundreds of kettledrummers on the backs of camels. The ominous sight and massive sound so frightened and impressed the western forces that they brought the custom back to Europe, which over the following 600 years developed into a tradition of mounting musicians on horseback throughout much of the world – initially as solitary signalers and later in units. By the 19th century these bands numbered in the hundreds and varied in size and instrumentation from a few trumpeters or bagpipers accompanied by drummers, to full concert bands on horseback.

Today there are about 20 mounted military bands left in the world, and graduate music education professor Dr. Bruce Gleason is chronicling their history and tradition through historical documents and images as well as through the contemporary photographs of collaborator John Gregor. Here are a few glimpses of Gleason’s experiences over the past few years.


On a somewhat overcast July day, John and I follow Inspector Jan Borremans, our police escort, through the tens of thousands of people lining Brussels’ La Place des Palais on le jour de la fête nationale (commemorating Belgium’s 1839 independence from the Nether-lands), cross the police line, and are ushered into the parade itself (I guess it pays to call ahead).

As we make our way past jeeps and ranks of soldiers toward Trompette Major Ivan Meyers and the 18-piece Corps des Trompettes de la Police Fédérale, part of the “Royal Escort,” I’m easily reminded of the original duty of military drummers and trumpeters as signalers in battle. By the 17th century, cavalries across Europe adapted horse-mounted kettledrummers and trumpeters for signaling purposes, who first began riding and performing together when signalers gathered from their individual units at the fronts of columns to lead a regiment to and from battle. Because captured kettledrums negated the enemy’s communication powers, they were regarded as a prized trophy of war up through the 19th century. Museums across Europe that still house former enemy kettledrums can attest to the fact that the only way of retrieving drums was to steal them back.

The occasion harkens back to the day when military commanders and royalty traveled with a retinue of mounted kettledrummers and trumpeters to announce their arrival on entrance to villages and cities. While the days of using kettledrums and trumpets for signaling are long gone, the regal energy and expectancy that accompanies this cavalry unit is a testament to why the Belgians hang on to their beloved Corps des Trompettes.


In a little office tucked away on the third floor of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, I gape at the numerous awards, citations, photographs, articles, and medals of royal musician Per-Anders Erixon, who tells me that Sweden has had a royal band of horse-mounted musicians since 1523. Erixon himself joined the army when he was 14 in 1944 and has been in the employ of the military and/or royal family in some form ever since. Serving as an oboist in one of the army bands and then as a mounted fanfare trumpeter and kettledrummer with the Livgardets Dragontrum-petarkår (LDK), he now serves his majesty with the special appointment of Royal Bugler.

On the following morning, the LDK is getting ready in the courtyard of their massive 19th-century stone kavalleri kasern to make their way to the palace of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia for the daily change-of-guard ceremony. John is busy capturing on film the age-old images of Swedish soldiers putting the finishing touches on their horses’ accoutrements, while I talk with musicians and try to keep out of the way.

After brushing his horse’s mane, conscript Jonatan Svensk polishes his fanfare trumpet – a long valved instrument used in the centuries-old tradition of performing for military ceremonies and within royal households to announce births, deaths and marriages.

Like their counterparts around the world, the main duties of the LDK are to perform for changes of guard and to lead royal parades. However, their preparation and terms of service are a far cry from the nearly 60 years of service of the conservatory-trained Erixon. Present-day LDK members are 18-year-old male conscript musicians (or female volunteer conscripts) serving one-year national service terms, who typically begin their conscript terms with no previous riding experience.

After undergoing equestrian and basic training beginning in January, members of the LDK have to be skilled enough to perform for the king’s birthday by April 30. They perform then for daily changes of command and state performances until the end of October when they are finished with their military service. Bandmaster Stig Rydqvist, (a veteran of LDK himself, and a former trumpet player with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic) then starts with a new group of conscripts the following January.

Svensk tells me, “I have a great job; every summer day we wear beautiful uniforms, ride fine Swedish Warmbloods through the streets of Stockholm while playing historic cavalry marches on the way to guard changes at the palace.” With thousands of adoring fans and tourists cheering as they have for five centuries, you do indeed have a great job, Mr. Svensk.

Sultanate of Oman

Now, on the third leg of a worldwide investigation of mounted bands, I’m making my way across the Maidan al Fatah, the football stadium-sized equestrian arena built in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for the Royal Equestrian and Camel Show. Surrounded by hundreds of horses, camels, carriages, soldiers and musicians during a dress rehearsal, British expatriate Colonel Roy Wearne, commander-director of the Third Band Squadron of the Royal Guard, tells me that this arena is used only one day every five years and only for this show, and that the sultan is serious about the event — uh, apparently.

While photographing and recording the mounted musicians and other action around me in this huge Omani arena on a sunny 87-degree January day, Wearne tells me that it has taken an enormous amount of work to develop this piece of culture. These current bands, which are no less than a pedagogical miracle, started 20+ years ago with recruits who not only had never played a musical instrument, but also had never seen western instruments or bands. They had never read anything from left to right – let alone musical notation – and had never ridden a horse. Today their jobs are comprised of doing all of these things at the same time dressed in beautiful uniforms for official functions all over the country.

Establishing military music here took some doing. Up until 1970, Oman was a medieval country in terms of commerce, living styles, transportation and health care. The present sultan overthrew his father with the help of supporters upon returning to Oman after schooling and military service in England. He brought the country into the contemporary world by developing oil reserves, establishing industry, and repealing his father’s oppressive social restrictions. The sultan soon hired U.K. expatriate military officers to lead and teach military units, including military musicians, and developed military bands in the Western tradition.

Later that evening, waiting for the sultan to arrive, I am visiting in the Maidan al Fatah with my host John Craig, U.S. ambassador to Oman. We discuss the anomaly of military bands in Oman between the selections played by the Omani Symphony Orchestra, whose members knew as much about playing instruments and reading musical notation as their counterparts in the bands had (though they did have the luxury of being able to play while sitting still). At this point, my music teaching jobs seem simple.


On the last stop of a multicultural and multi-century musical investigation, I witness the interesting juxtaposition of professional musicians cleaning an 18th-century stable in the heart of Paris. With instruments comprised of valveless trumpets, straight horns, bass trumpets, and valved helicons (a wrap-around tuba that predates the sousaphone), and two pairs of kettledrums, members of La Fanfare de Cavalerie de la Garde Républicaine typically are conservatory trained, spend nearly two years in military and equestrian training and remain with the band until they retire at 55.

Riding issues are a consideration for all mounted bands and are representatively addressed in an interview with Lt. Col. J. L. Salvador, second in command of La Garde Républicaine’s Le Régiment de Cavalerie. He explained, “As one can imagine, the 500+ horses maintained by the Garde Républicaine also receive a great deal of training – especially La Fanfare’s horses, which must get used to the loud sounds of brass and drums. Horses must be extremely well trained because along with performing for millions of people a year in state capacities, riders are dividing their time between playing an instrument and managing a horse. Horses have to be able to behave and to be trustworthy.” Salvador explains that brass musicians play their instruments with one hand and guide the horse with their left and that timbaliers (kettledrummers) guide their horses with reins attached to their stirrups since both of their hands are occupied.

Jean-Marc Lanois and Sébastién Paquereali, members of the band’s trompette cor section since 1987, agree that it takes an unusual person to be willing to go through the training for entrance into La Fanfare, but tell me that they think it is worth it to show people that wars were often ways of showing off pageantry as much as anything else.


Since contemporary concert bands in schools, colleges and universities are direct descendents of their military ancestors in terms of tradition, instrumentation, and instrument development, my research is a natural fit with the St. Thomas Graduate Programs in Music Education. Although I have gathered hundreds of images and documents of horse-mounted musicians from 1237 to the present from museums, private collectors, and military units the world over (to which have been added thousands of photographs taken by John Gregor), the research and travel are far from over. Mounted bands still exist in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, England, Senegal, Italy, Spain and Portugal, and Turkish, Polish, Russian and German archival sources remain untouched.

A former euphonium player with the 298th U.S. Army Band of the Berlin Brigade, Dr. Bruce Gleason is an assistant professor of graduate music education at St. Thomas. Holder of a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, Gleason is a popular lecturer in band history.